Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2014 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

I will admit to not having paid much attention to the NHL this year, particularly after Christmas; I just had too much going on in the rest of my life this year, and it was the easiest thing to drop. I also had a sense of impending doom about the way the season would turn out for my Leafs, and teams north of the border in general, so it made it more difficult to be emotionally invested. Unfortunately, I was not surprised by the result of the regular season: the continued ineptitude of the Flames and Oilers, the Canucks' unsurprising woes (what a surprise that Tortorella was a terrible fit for that team), the Jets' inability to make progress into the playoffs, the Senators' struggles, and the Leafs' last quarter collapse all contributed to my lack of attention being "rewarded", so to speak. But even with my relative lack of attention to the NHL over the past season, I still feel that I need to posit my thoughts on the playoffs as they start later today. Before I get to my (admittedly mostly uninformed) picks, here are a couple of asides on the Leafs' performance and the new division/playoff format.

The wilting Leafs

This was not the year that the Leafs needed, although it is easy to argue that it is the year they deserved. As many critics stated, the Leafs' performance this year would be a de facto referendum on the new focus on advanced metrics; the vote was clearly in favour of Corsi and company, rather than the old-school kind of method the team used. David Clarkson was (as many people, including me, expected) the worst free agent signing in recent league memory, and aside from Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, and Jonathan Bernier, the entire team was a disappointment. Bernier was a revelation in goal, but his success came at the expense of James Reimer (one of my favourite players who I hope gets traded to the Jets, my team in the West). This team, only a year removed from that heart-breaking loss in Game 7 in Boston, regressed significantly, and they look as far away from success as they did several years ago.

With that said, though, there is always hope for next year: the team has the 8th pick in a strong draft class; the team just brought on Brendan Shanahan as team president (a move, I know, that could seem like they are still depending on "old school" hockey, but that I think could pay off with the power of Shanny's personality in the Toronto market); and players like Kadri and Lupul could bounce back from their off years. I know that kind of talk reeks of the "maybe next year" desperation for which Leaf fans are perenially mocked, but we really have no other option, especially when the team nosedives in the playoff stretch. In some ways, I would rather have endured this setback as opposed to a crashing loss in the first round, but then again, it's always better to have the chance to win than to be watching from the outside. The next few months will be really important for the Leafs, and it will be very interesting to see how Shanahan affects the team.

On the new playoff format

I can't say that I was a huge proponent of the new divisions and playoff system at the beginning of the year, but it seems to have worked out well enough. A cursory glance at the results of the season seems to indicate that the teams that should be in are in, and the teams that did not play well enough were not in; I'm sure some stat geek out there will crunch the numbers and see how the new divisions and shootouts and the imbalance between conferences all affected the final results, but it seems like everything worked out well enough. It's interesting that Detroit and Columbus both made the playoffs in their first year in their new conference (like Toronto did in their switchover in 1999), and that Dallas made the playoffs in their first year in their new division; it just really indicates how much a geographical misplacement can affect a team.

In terms of the actual playoff seeding, it seems like the new format may actually be more fair than the previous three-division format. In previous years, there was almost always a fourth (or fifth) seeded team that earned more points than the winner of the weakest division, who was automatically awarded the third seed in the conference; this year, the seeds are all in order, and there is not that kind of discrepancy. The wild card format seems to have worked well (so far); the fact that the competition was interesting only until the last week or so of the season was due to the collapse of some teams and not to the fallacy of the format. It does seem like the divisional rivalries will work well in the playoffs, and for the most part, each team is playing a divisional rival even with the wild cards (only Anaheim and Dallas is the exception, and they were divisional rivals until this year, so it still has that same feel). Perhaps the best part of the new format is that not only are teams seeded, but there is now a functional bracket, rather than the reseeding process that always messed with playoff predictions. Teams - and prognosticators - now will know who they could play in each round, rather than waiting for the last Game 7 to be played. So with that, it's time for my picks for this year's Stanley Cup playoffs.

Western Conference

Colorado vs. Minnesota: This series features two young teams with lots of firepower, strong goaltending, and minimal playoff experience, so it's really anyone's guess. Although I think that Minnesota could pull it off, I think that coach Patrick Roy might make the difference in this series. Colorado in 6.

St. Louis vs. Chicago: This might be the best series in the first round: two teams with young leadership, great goaltending, and lots of expectations. Chicago is the defending champs, and although they seemed unbeatable early in the season, they look beatable now. I expect Ryan Miller to make the difference here, so I am picking St. Louis in 6.

Anaheim vs. Dallas: Anaheim was the second-best team in the league this year, while Dallas surprised a lot of people by finally making the playoffs. The Ducks are just too strong, though, and the Stars have been playing for their lives for so long that they might be a little tired. Anaheim in 5.

San Jose vs. Los Angeles: Another candidate for the best first round series and arguably the hardest series to pick. Both teams have playoff experience, strong goaltending, veteran leadership, and high expectations. In the end, I think that the series will likely come down to Game 7, and I'm picking San Jose to win that game, knowing that I could very easily be wrong. But the pick is San Jose in 7.

That would pit Colorado against St. Louis and Anaheim against San Jose in the divisional finals. I think St. Louis would beat the Avalanche, and I'll pick San Jose to advance out of the Pacific. That would result in a St. Louis - San Jose Western Conference Finals, with a long-awaited Finals appearance on the line for both teams (never for the Sharks, since 1970 in St. Louis). It could go either way, but I'm going to pick St. Louis to make it to the Finals out of the West; call it a hunch.

Eastern Conference

Boston vs. Detroit: Boston is the best team in the league, and they have a chip on their shoulder after last year's stunning Cup loss in Game 6 to Chicago. Detroit is young and vulnerable, so even making the playoffs has been an accomplishment for them. Detroit will be able to play loose and free, so they should take a game or maybe two, but I think that Boston is just too strong and too motivated to win. Boston in 5.

Tampa Bay vs. Montreal: The only Canadian team against a team that no one expected to be there, especially after they traded away Martin St. Louis. TB gets to play free, while Montreal might be tight under the weight of their expectations. My thought is that Montreal waits until Round 2 for their heartbreak, but they still don't make this round easy on themselves. Montreal in 6.

Pittsburgh vs. Columbus: This is arguably the least interesting series of the playoffs, and unless something happens in the first couple of games, it will likely be the most forgettable. Pittsburgh should win this series easily, unless Bobrovsky steals the series. I'm picking Pittsburgh in 4.

New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia: These are the two most inscrutable teams in the playoffs. They both looked terrible and terrific at different points in the season, and their players are equally as unpredictable. I think it will come down to a couple of points in favour of the Rangers: Martin St. Louis and goalie Henrik Lundqvist. New York in 6.

That would make the Division Finals in the East Boston and Montreal and Pittsburgh and New York. Boston is just too strong for Montreal, and they are primed for a collapse anyway; Pittsburgh and New York will be an interesting series, but I'll pick Pittsburgh, even if just to see the rematch from last year's Conference Finals between Boston and Pittsburgh. While the Penguins have the motivation to avenge last year's epic choke, I just think that the Bruins are too strong this year, so I'm picking them to win.

That would make a St. Louis and Boston Cup Final with a lot of storylines: Boston's return to the Final; Ryan Miller's redemption; St. Louis' first appearance in the Final since 1970, when they lost to the Bruins on Bobby Orr's famous goal; and, of course, Jarome Iginla's quest for the Cup. Although that would be a memorable match up, it just seems like the Bruins' destiny to win this year; plus, it puts that extra little bit of the knife in the hearts of Leaf fans, who know deep down that Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask should have been a Leaf. Boston will hoist the Cup for the second time in four years, and Rask should win the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP.

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